A blog of music and the mind

Category: Psychology of Music (Page 1 of 2)

The Music Goes Around

Communication and miscommunication seem to drive every human action. They’re responsible for the slow build of every strong and worthwhile friendship and the skulking, sinister suspicion and hatred that anyone can develop for some “other” who isn’t like them.

Miscommunicating even with yourself can spell all kinds of trouble, as people lie to themselves or refuse to acknowledge troubling thoughts and memories.

Music, though, has its own way of acting as our thoughts. It can communicate for us in ways that we can’t bring ourselves to do otherwise.

I seek out and listen to music every day without fail, and unless I’m in a boring mood, I never actually have to do the work of consciously selecting the genre, artist, or song.

That’s because I already know what I need on some level. I need the music that’s going to communicate to me what I’m struggling to tell myself.

Notes and chords and words and voices are made by and for humans. Some song, somewhere, in some far-away corner, is going to resonate with me, and it’s going to get in me and probably never leave.

At this point, my own long-curated selection of music is everything in the world. I can find it anywhere because it lives everywhere.

It’s in my bones.

It’s in my organs.

It’s in my blood.

It grows everywhere because I plant it everywhere. And I would bet that others like me feel the same.

The music that communicates to me, that whispers in my ears every day, that can never leave. It helps me understand the world. It helps me to know myself. It lets me connect feelings to thoughts and memories and times and places.

Songs that hit me in the chest have driven me to action and inaction.

The songs of my teenage years, my twenties, from 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2021, this very day, will both remain in those times and always be with me because I’ll always carry them. They’re in my head when other songs play, when I traverse the streets of some city, when I stand idle in an elevator.

It must be the same for others. It has to be.

Music can mark the most significant, ecstatic, grim, and poignant moments of our lives. The music that lands with you seems almost completely arbitrary. It depends on who you’ve discovered, what you’re inclined to like, what you’ve lived through, and how much you’ve matured.

The music that lives in me can take me across the world, really. I visit my hometown neighborhoods, I go back to school, I go to a 1940s jazz club, I go to the Middle East, I head up to Russia. The musical DNA of the human family shows me the ancient world, the halls of royalty, the family birthday parties, the world wars.

Led Zeppelin’s “The Rover” is a 14-year-old huddled in front of the kitchen radio.

Rage Against the Machine’s “Roll Right” is that long highway commute to an exciting new job in the dark of the early winter mornings.

Mark Knopfler’s “Everybody Pays” is the devastation.

Bob Dylan’s “Up to Me” is waiting in the wings, wondering if shame or courage could drive me out on what I believed to be the biggest stage of my life.

Phish’s 2/28/03 “Back on the Train” is cruising.

Even that foolish 2008 era of Lady Gaga has its place.

Charley Patton’s “Going to Move to Alabama” is my first real experience of adult life.

John Coltrane’s “Naima” and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Lenny” are tender love and tribute that can never go away.

And if the original “Proud Mary” is the last song that I, too, ever hear on this earth, that will be just fine with me.

What do you think you wanted when you got here? What do you want now? What do you still want? How can you get it? Will you vow never to step over others to get there? Do you think that you could? Will you comb through the trust you’ve built and decide which ones would be best to betray? There really are no consequences for you if you’ve already rationalized it.

I find that music can help me address so many of these things, just not always in the most obvious of ways. No matter how loud it is, music really is like a whisper. You might need to do the work to hear it.

Sometimes, I wonder if the past is a time and place that can actually be touched again, either through wormholes or black holes or some other disruption in space and time.

But I think even if it isn’t, the connections people have to the music that means something to them will live on in some way. You won’t see them or hear them spoken about, but if you stop to realize the breadth of what the human animal is capable of synthesizing in its mind, you might meet up with those connections yourself, someday down the road.

Top 6 Tom Waits Deep Tracks

The thought of covering any kind of Tom Waits subject on Musical Record has been intimidating to me for as long as I’ve considered it. I know I can dissect any individual song out there, but Waits has remained such a rare bird throughout his 50 years in music that I wasn’t even sure I could get close enough to study him.

He has been so many things since he first showed up with Closing Time in 1973.

The entirety of the 1970s saw Waits playing the noirish, drunken jazz-bar crooner, calling attention to the seedy American underworld and the sketchy characters that inhabit it. Think Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller types.

Waits’s gravelly, Howlin’ Wolf-style growl really suited that persona, and he knew how to write in a way that made listeners empathize with these people they might otherwise ignore on the street.

Waits has always been a private guy, but the story goes that he married musician and artist Kathleen Brennan in 1980. She became his collaborator, helping him to let his real creative powers begin flowing into his songcraft. Waits then went off the musical rails in the early 1980s and has never come back.

He emerged from this freshly bountiful period with 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, where the world was first exposed to the new Tom Waits: he was now more of an avant-garde artist, playing in experimental rock and blues, jokey spoken-word tracks, and off-beat instrumentals.

Lyrically, he still lived in the dark, brooding underworld of modern society, but he found all new ways of telling those stories through music.

Waits will often get inspiration for a song by listening to two or more radios at the same time, subjecting himself to mishearing things that could provide the spark. He’ll use found objects as sounds in his songs, such as barbecuing chicken to ape the familiar noise of a popping vinyl record.

Yes, he is a real one.

How I Rank These Buried Tom Waits Songs

So that’s the Tom Waits of the present. If you’ve never heard a Waits song before, you might be pretty shocked when you start. For myself, I have to assume only the power of musical repetition let me finally accept his truly grating singing voice.

His post-70s music is not exactly accessible, and so it does sound a little odd even to me to be ranking his “deep cuts.”

I would guess most people don’t know who Tom Waits is and certainly haven’t heard even his better-known songs (someone, tell me please if you’ve heard Waits on any kind of radio in the last 20 or 30 years).

Now, there are some songs that pop up a little higher than others here and there, sometimes due to more popular cover versions.

There’s the Eagles’ cover of “Ol’ 55.”

There’s Wait’s original version of “Way Down in the Hole” that was made popular on The Wire.

Rod Stewart beautifully covered “Downtown Train.”

And, surprisingly, “Little Drop of Poison” was used in the seamy tavern scene in Shrek 2.

So, those are the types of songs I don’t want to discuss here. Maybe you’ve never heard of any of those. Maybe every Tom Waits song is obscure to you. That’s cool.

What I consider a deep track in Waits’s case is something that’s an album cut, nothing with fanfare or anything that’s received special attention over the years. Yet, they had to be songs that still contain great lyrical and musical value.

I could have chosen so many songs for these six. It was hard. (For the diehards out there, other strong contenders included “$29.00,” “Burma Shave,” “Temptation,” “Oily Night,” “Reeperbahn,” and “Bone Chain.”)

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to explore all this. I’m a little nervous. Let’s just do it.

1. “Please Call Me, Baby” (1974)

The first song comes from Waits’s second album, The Heart of Saturday Night, released in 1974 when Waits was only 24 years old.

This is early Waits, his classic vocal jazz period. This is an album of great maturity from someone still so young. There’s heartache, loss, goodbyes, fights, and lots of booze.

I hadn’t listened to this album in years prior to writing this, but one song that has always stood out to me after all this time is “Please Call Me, Baby,” the second song on side two of the original vinyl.

The narrator and his lady are always arguing, and this time, she has stormed out the door. The speaker then gets a little sentimental and ponders their love. He knows they’ve both been emotional, and neither is perfect, but he can’t stop thinking about her anyway. He just wants her to call him from wherever she is so he knows she isn’t in trouble.

I try so hard when I listen to any song to put myself in the writer’s place and get in touch with the music and emotions of it all.

I understand the sense of being furious at someone and yet missing them when they’re not around. The fact that this song dates to the 1970s means that Waits is referring to pay phones when he asks her to call him. I get his sense of desperation; he can’t get in touch with her unless she calls him on her own. He has no idea when or if she’ll be back, and even though he knows they ain’t perfect, he can’t shake her.

The string-driven chorus of the song is pretty by Waits’s standards, but I don’t think that takes away from its import. It’s such a real love song. It describes how human relationships actually go. This isn’t some silly bubble gum song.

And yet, “Please Call Me, Baby” is a so-called “deep track” of Waits’s, but it’s completely worthy of standing among his best work. I’ll always love it.

tom waits portrait


2. “Pasties and a G-String (At the Two O’Clock Club)” (1976)

By 1976, Waits had descended more into the world that made up his songs. He was drinking a lot, like a lot. The road does that to people sometimes, the near-constant traveling while still trying to live somewhat of a life.

From a selfish perspective, I can say that this period of Waits’s still-early career made his album Small Change one of his all-time musical best.

It’s a downhearted set of piano-and-sax ballads mostly, from the “Tom Traubert’s Blues” opener down to “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.” But you could name countless examples of how artists’ dark times have made for powerful music.

One of the deep tracks here is an unusual song from this set, kind of buried on side two: “Pasties and a G-String (At the Two O’Clock Club).”

It’s a strangely uptempo performance that features a verbose and significantly gravelly Waits.

He’s backed only by drums, riffing from the perspective of a dude at a bawdy burlesque show. He runs through the booze, the terrible music, and most of all, the beautiful women and their stripteases.

The most fun part of this is the three times that Waits breaks down into scat singing (with great confidence).

I called the song strange in that it’s upbeat on a mostly downbeat record, but I still don’t let that fool me. The narrator is having the time of his life, but what are burlesque shows, what are cabarets, what are strip clubs but simple distractions meant to let you forget your real struggles for a little while?

This is a grown man going crazy for pastied women shaking and shimmying all over the floor. If this is his Saturday night, how empty is his life? What does he have waiting for him after the hangover the next morning?

And for Waits, the creator, what an accomplishment to convey this level of depression (as I read it) through an essentially happy song. As I say, “Pasties and a G-String” is buried on Small Change, but my appreciation of it has only grown since I’ve listened to it over again for this.

3. “Mr. Siegal” (1980)

“Mr. Siegal” from 1980’s Heartattack and Vine is a perfect deep cut in every way. It’s literally (not quite literally) buried toward the end of the album.

To my knowledge, it has never been used in any kind of media or even been mentioned with any kind of frequency by fans I’ve been around (though diehard Waits fans love pretty much everything he’s done).

I have never put much thought into the song’s lyrical meaning, but from what I can gather, this is an apparent reference to Bugsy Siegel, the American gangster and hitman who got involved with the Las Vegas casino industry in the 1930s and 1940s.

The lyrics seem to describe a criminally inclined guy who’s considering leaving the life but just can’t find his way out. There’s plenty of references to criminal acts, but interestingly, the chorus has the narrator grappling with the influence of angels and the devil.

I have no doubt that Waits would be influenced by the life of someone like Bugsy Siegel and the eternal struggle between people’s good and evil natures. “Mr. Siegal” is an interesting look into the mind of a thinking mobster.

But more than that for me, I enjoy “Mr. Siegal” for its upbeat rock sound. It’s piano driven and features a strong vocal performance from Waits, who forcefully projects his rusty snarls above the musical fray.

This one’s a cool track and one of my favorites from Waits’s career.

4. “Black Wings” (1992)

So how long do you have to sit through a discussion of “Black Wings” from Wait’s 1992 album Bone Machine?

It’s easily the most sinister song on an album already full of brooding, concentrated malice. Not Waits’s malice for another entity, but the existing destructive forces of the natural world.

I suppose “destructive force” is one way to label the character in “Black Wings.” Another way reveals itself if you really study Waits’s lyrics from start to finish.

This song appears to be about some kind of supernatural avenging angel that is not affected by anything this world can do to stop him.

He rides through people’s dreams on a horse-drawn coach.

He’s escaped from every prison that has tried to keep him, so much so that no one tries to capture him anymore.

He’s garroted a man with a guitar string and yet has saved a drowning baby.

He appears in places and then vanishes.

Some people are afraid of him, but others respect what he does.

A few even say they’ve seen black wings under his coat.

One thing is common to everyone, though: anyone who has seen him denies they ever did.

The biblical imagery is strong in the lyrics, and not just because of the “eye for an eye” vengeance reference. Specifically, I can see Jesus here. When men try to approach him in an upper room, they find nothing there “for he has risen.”

We also have everyone denying him, just like the disciples did to Jesus in his final hours.

But this isn’t Jesus, for this figure was born away in a cornfield, not in a manger, as that phrasing might otherwise suggest.

So, what’s with the parallels, and why are they important?

Well, I don’t know. It’s open-ended. You could concoct a religious-based theory of God sending an anti-hero avenging angel to Earth to mete out justice, and that’s why good and bad things happen.

You could also use a harsh version of the Jesus story to tell who this figure is. He’s sent to earth by God to save the innocent and destroy evil with no mercy.

The more interesting idea to me–as I let the creepy, moody guitar envelop me for 4 minutes and 38 seconds–is that the bearer of the black wings is supposed to be more of a force than some assassin or other person. Think of a grim reaper-type.

I think it’s the death/fate that awaits us all. It’s ancient, primitive, but it’s always been working.

Some people go violently. Others, like the drowning baby, are suddenly saved by a stroke of luck, with no other viable explanation.

You can’t catch death. You can’t lock it up.

But you can deny it because you fear it. Look death in the eyes and survive, and you, too, might deny you ever met it face to face. You do it by going on living, acting like you’ll live forever. We all do it, or we’d go crazy.

One day, though, those black wings will be the last things we each see.

tom waits guitar


5. “Buzz Fledderjohn” (2006, but from 1999)

The attractiveness of a track like “Buzz Fledderjohn” from 2006’s compilation Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards is in both its musical atmosphere and lyrical tightness.

It’s a slow, rural, guitar-and-harmonica blues that just oozes a hot, sticky, backwoods setting. Dogs bark in the background throughout the track. It’s perfect.

Told in the first person, “Buzz Fledderjohn” is a story of someone, probably a kid, who isn’t allowed into the yard of his neighbor, Buzz Fledderjohn. But he can’t bear not to know what’s over there, so he gets up on his roof and stands there for hours, staring into the yard.

The things he sees make up the rest of the song. They start out realistic enough: guns and ammunition and World War II books.

But then our narrator gets a little fantastical, likely due to his burning curiosity. Apparently, Buzz Fledderjohn also has piranhas, a snake swallowing a doberman, and a fish in a bathtub.

Over and over, the narrator reminds himself he isn’t allowed in the yard.

So what is all this, then? The kid’s bitter because he can’t get a piece of this guy’s privacy. Every once in a while (“What’s He Building ?” [1999]), Tom Waits will write about voyeurism and how strangers just need to know what someone else’s life is.

Think of the enormous complexity of a single human life. You know all the details of your own, how things are organized, what something means to you, how your past has shaped you, which of your interpersonal relationships have caveats, and what those caveats are.

You know it all like an expert, but even one person removed from you is operating on a completely different level.

No one can know the full scope of detail of your life as well as you do.

Would you want them to?

I would not.

It makes me uncomfortable to be asked personal questions, to be watched, to be given sideways looks by a nosy neighbor who just needs to know why I keep to myself so hard.

Who is Buzz Fledderjohn? I don’t know.

Who’s the kid? No idea.

Why isn’t he allowed in Buzz Fledderjohn’s yard? Also don’t know.

None of those things is the point.

We humans tend to get a bit inquisitive when we’re told we’re not allowed to know something. We just gotta find out what’s being kept from us. And if we can’t, we’ll make up stories to fill the void or to get back at those private secret-keepers who just want to be left alone.

After all, how dare they put up fences? They’re cloaking their activities. They have to be up to no good, probably feeding dogs to their snakes and letting killer fish swim around a mixing bowl.

6. “Two Sisters” (2006)

Bringing up the rear is “Two Sisters” from Orphans. This is not a complete Waits original. “The Twa Sisters” is a traditional song, in fact a murder ballad dating at least to mid-seventeenth-century Scotland.

As with many traditional folk songs, it’s been known by many names over the centuries, but here, Waits arranged the ballad with Kathleen Brennan and called it “Two Sisters.”

And, just like the title has changed, the story of the ballad has numerous versions, but I’ll speak about the one here.

Accompanied only by a plaintive violin, Waits recounts the story of two sisters to whom comes a handsome young man, Willy. The older sister takes a liking to him, but he has eyes only for the younger sister, Kate.

The older one suggests the two sisters go walking along the shore, and while they stroll, the older sister pushes her sister into the sea. She refuses her cries for help and taunts her, saying she will now take Willy and his land for herself.

The miller tries to help Kate out of the water, but the older sister pays him to throw her back in, so he does, and Kate drowns. The miller is seen, arrested, and hanged, while the older sister gets away with it all and presumably marries Willy.

Got that?

Why are we singing about this? Why is this a song?

You have to read it in the context of the murder ballad. The purpose of this literary subgenre is to recount a crime that occurred in the time of the original composer (although with so much of the folk tradition being oral, the details and facts tend to be a bit fluid).

There’s no intrinsic lesson here, no neat and tidy ending.

There’s also no justice. The older woman murders her sister for money and land and gets away with it and has no remorse.

It’s familiar territory for Waits, always concerned with the seedy corners of life, the darkness inside each of us.

“Two Sisters” speaks for itself, and I don’t have much need to interpret it or what it means to me other than to marvel at what human envy is capable of sometimes.

I hope at least someone goes and listens to this one from here. It’s a pretty sobering five minutes.

What Have We Learned from These Tom Waits Songs?

If there’s anything to take from this particular selection of Tom Waits songs, it’s simply that this is a man who seems to exist to shine a light on the dark underbelly of the world. We all know it’s there, but maybe a lot of us try to ignore it.

For reasons known to Waits and Brennan, that part of the human experience is endlessly fascinating to him.

I don’t think it matters why he’s intrigued. That interest has produced some of Tom Waits’s best songs over the last few decades.

I think back to my first post, “Why Do We Like the Music We Like,” when I think about Tom Waits. His music is not exactly pleasant listening. The best Tom Waits lyrics are those that listeners will tend to find the most depressing or unsettling.

Maybe we fans like him because he gets us thinking about those kinds of societal taboos, the things that make us uncomfortable.

That an artist can do what he’s done while avoiding the mainstream spotlight and never selling out to anyone is impressive and admirable.

I’m hoping he can make one more album before he retires for good. Bad As Me was 10 years ago, just saying.

How Phish Made Me Love Live Music

I have found that many of my life’s most profound discoveries and other turning points have happened at random, at those times when I wasn’t even looking for something new.

Once I catch wind of something I’ve been missing out on, I have to sit and wonder how much else I’ve turned a blind eye to over the years. If the discovery is important enough to you, it could alter your whole outlook for the rest of your life.

Regular readers of the Musical Record blog will know that music is one of my lifelines. It has its duty, its role to play, right there with my family, my alone time, the food I eat.

As such, my connection to music has been well established over the last 15 years that I’ve been seriously listening to it. That is to say: I know what music I like and what I would like. That knowledge comes from near-constant listening, studying, and self-examining. Over the years, without having done the research, I felt like I fully understood why we like the music we like.

Well, before the year 2019, I thought I knew everything I ever would about my musical tastes. But then, one of those unexpected discoveries burst into my life. It hit like a train, and the effects were nearly the same: my musical knowledge seemed to shatter and lie broken all over the ground.

But this wasn’t a scene of destruction. Rather, it was the breaking down of norms that is necessary if one really wants to learn and grow.

This was my first contact with a rock band called Phish, and here is the story of how Phish taught me to love something I had never truly respected: live music.

phish purple lights

Live Music and Me
Enter: Phish Concerts
What Is a Phish Concert Like?
A Few Personal Notes about Song Favorites
2/28/03 “Bathtub Gin”
2/28/03 “Back on the Train”
7/22/97 “Mike’s Song”
So, Why Do I Love Live Music Now?

Live Music and Me

When I connect to certain artists on deep levels–with Bob Dylan, say, or Leonard Cohen–then, rather than just skimming the hits off the top, I like to dive deep. And inevitably, once I get through the studio discography, I’m left with the artist’s live output.

This is where things have gotten sort of murky for me over the years. Until quite recently–literally 2019–I wanted almost nothing to do with live recordings. I’ve been to plenty of concerts in my life, but mostly for the excitement of seeing one of my favorites in person.

Indeed, until last year, I had long held a negative opinion of live music, for this reason: I disliked how different the songs often sounded compared to their studio counterparts.

You can take that in multiple ways. Probably many people like the variations. I didn’t. I would get annoyed when a song that I knew well was so altered that, were it not for the lyrics, I would never be able to tell it was the same song. Dylan likes making those kinds of changes in concert.

I also never liked how concerts seem to make everything sound somewhat rushed and sloppy. When you’re an artist putting on a show, you’ve got thousands of people in front of you, and just one chance to sing each song.

As a result, I found that many performances I had been to sounded like rehearsals, with my favorite instrumental parts or vocal inflections from the studio glaringly absent or just trampled over in the rush of the show.

Compare all that to studio recordings, in which the artist has plenty of time to work through the songs with the band and producers. Musicians can go into the studio with unfinished songs and work them out with the recording time they’ve booked.

The slow progression to perfection eventually allows the studio album to be completed and released. Then, when I hear that album for the first time and happen to love it, I know I can return to it anytime I want, with all the sounds staying exactly the same for the rest of time.

This setup was unbeatable to me. I stuck to the studio stuff and didn’t really budge toward live albums. This was the case even with Bob Dylan, an artist to whom I have the strongest of connections through music and emotions.

So, what happened to explode this world and, in effect, show me the error of my thinking?

Enter: Phish Concerts

The short answer is that Phish kicked down the doors to my musical heart and started spewing funky jams and psychedelic space journeys all over the place.

To contextualize that somewhat: my now-buddy Steve became my coworker and started playing Phish on the office Spotify.

phish red lights

I don’t know if I can do justice to my initial reaction to Phish concerts. Here was a band that for the last almost 40 years had been specifically known as a live act. So they had a lot of practice at the whole live experience. They relished it, and so did the fans.

At first, I would waffle between thinking all Phish sounded the same and thinking I liked some songs, but only sometimes. Ultimately, I wasn’t totally buying it yet, all the jamming.

But the familiarity principle eventually took its toll on me. More listening meant I was able to pick out more details, and I slowly started paying more attention.

After a few months, I realized that all the live music I had heard to that point seemed to be falling off a cliff.

Something I may have thought at the time was: “Why have I been letting some poorly recorded Buddy Guy from the 1970s color my opinion of live music, especially when I now have access to this obviously creative and zany jam band that’s having such a good time being different in concert?”

What Is a Phish Concert Like?

What struck me, and still does, about Phish was how many things the band can be in a single concert performance.

I don’t just mean that on a musical level. Those elements are there: I love funk music, and Phish is nothing if not oozing funk out their ears. They’re also a straight rock band a lot of the time, and what musical genre is more accessible than rock?

However, as strange as this sounds, take the music out of it for a moment. What gets me and probably fans everywhere about Phish is the band members’ abilities to jam, sometimes for a half hour or more, while never losing pace with one another.

Listen to singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio slip into a rhythm and have keyboardist Page McConnell instantly back him up, and know how to do it tastefully. Then, pay attention to the rhythm section of bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman as they intuit how to give it all as much or as little force as the piece needs.

Anyone who knows Phish understands that this kind of improv is no surprise. The real surprise is always in what you’ll get on a given night, how one song will transition to another, and where the song will take everyone.

See, when Phish plays a show, they’re aren’t like most bands. They don’t go out there and repeat a setlist from the night before. And, even if they did, it wouldn’t actually be the same set.

Now, what do I mean by that? Phish is as cohesive a unit as there ever has been on a stage. The band creates conditions whereby an existing song can take off by itself and become something that nobody expects. There are Phish songs that can be 7 minutes one night and 19 minutes the next.

As you might expect from what I’ve said so far, the differences between these song versions aren’t just in the length. The whole feel–the mood, the rhythm, the atmosphere, the places the song goes–all of this changes from performance to performance.

In the Phish universe, there are type I jams and type II jams. Type I jams are more traditional songs; a song’s structure holds throughout the performance and ends as you might expect. There’s plenty of room for interesting and surprising jamming in the middle, but we’re not nuking the fridge.

Meanwhile, type II jams go off the rails, usually by a lot. Type II performances break down the song structure completely and become different animals. Trey may go off into no man’s land,  but the others are right there with him, keeping time, holding the experience in place.

These are where the jams get nasty, crunchy, you could even say. The band might spin us a dark tale, or get progressive and take us through space and time for a while, as the moody rhythms wind their way through places you’ve never been. And this can all be done without any singing whatsoever.


Here’s a perfect example of the type of differentials I’m talking about. Take a classic like “Ghost,” the 7/23/97 version of it. This is 26 minutes of funk-infused jamming that drives along at a swift clip before bringing things down about 20 minutes in.

It’s classic type II, as we expect one thing to be the case but are then smoothly transitioned into something else. The places your mind goes in this type II can be astounding (by the way, it’s performances like this one that can run a Phish concert to three hours or more).

Next, go to 11/17/97’s “Ghost.” The Stevie Wonder-style funk returns, but this time, we’re at mid-tempo and able to catch our breath a little more. As we go on and hit the 7-minute mark, things get spacey. Page’s piano comes in and lends almost a nostalgic air to the performance.

By about 11 minutes, we may as well be floating on a cloud, as the overall tone of the song has become calmly euphoric. Page knows exactly how to complement Trey, and Fishman and Mike are always present in the back, keeping us moving.

Then, at about 15 minutes, we gracefully transition back to the core of the song. The musicianship is nothing short of stunning, akin to a jazz or classical band hitting every step just right.

Finally, listen to “Ghost” from 7/6/98. This is a type I song. As I said, there’s sufficient time for some jamming in the middle, but we never leave the structure behind.

Now, I don’t want you to think that a type I Phish song is boring in any way. The band might stay within the established structure of the song, but that doesn’t mean that this night’s type I “Ghost” is going to be anything like the type I “Ghost” they play the next night or next week or whatever it is.

Here’s an example of how this 7/6/98 version is different. We ease along for about 7.5 minutes before Trey starts riffing on his own. The band keeps him grounded in “Ghost,” but still, there he goes, charting his own course.

Things really take a turn at about 10 minutes in, when Trey hits his pedalboard and fires away into a full-on guitar party. It’s a jam! It just happened that way, and it still fits right into the type I “Ghost” format.

Now, tell me who in the audience knew that was going to happen in exactly that way? Maybe Phish fans knew what they could expect–what had the potential to happen–but no one had any idea where this performance was going until it went there.

To cap off this perfect event, listen to how “Ghost” transitions so elegantly into a cover of “Cities” by Talking Heads. It’s so smooth that you don’t even know what’s happening until you’re in it.

The thing is, we just enjoyed such good feelings with “Ghost” that to end it all so abruptly would be jarring. Instead, we ease right into something new and different in the tasteful way that Phish handles just about all their musical decisions.

It should be plain to see by now that, for someone like me who is at this moment still “getting into” Phish, it would seem that the great diversities of a Phish concert are more than enough to absorb.


But then, there are the theatrics. What would a Phish show be without a little fun, juvenile or otherwise, along the way?

I’m talking about Trey and Mike’s synchronized trampoline jumping over the years, all while continuing to play and never losing time. I mean the novelty of Phish’s annual Halloween shows, in which the band covers an entire album of another artist (or their own). There’s also the craziness of their New Year’s Eve shows, in which audiences always get to experience some kind of surreal gimmick, such as the band riding a giant hot dog through the arena in 1994.

And obviously, “theatrics” also refers to the absolutely stunning light shows the band puts on, all controlled by the fifth member of the band, Chris Kuroda, who will improvise right along with the music. The images throughout this post give you a good idea of what I’m referring to.

phish yellow lights

A Few Personal Notes about Song Favorites

So, I’ve explained a lot about Phish here. We went into my discovery of them, some technical details about the way they work, and how a Phish concert usually proceeds. Here are some notes about a few of my favorite Phish performances.

2/28/03 “Bathtub Gin”

“Bathtub Gin” has been a Phish classic and fan favorite for a lot of years, and for good reason. Like probably most of the Phish repertoire, it’s a fun romp into the surreal and never really takes itself too seriously.

That playful opening and chill guitar riff are in fine form on 2/28/03. We drift along pleasantly for about 12 minutes before picking up the pace a bit. Trey shreds for a little while, and then we ease back into the relaxation and fun of the “Gin” main riff at about 19.5 minutes.

This is a long, fun adventure of a Phish staple, and I’ve drawn a lot of pleasure from working with it in the background, as it stirs up a current that takes me off into a more comfortable place.

2/28/03 “Back on the Train”

This is a top 10 Phish performance for me. No other version I’ve heard (so far) compares to this one. “Back on the Train” is lyrically a travel song about ideas traveling all around the world, turning one’s face to the wind, and going. The song drives along at a rhythmic clip, reminding me of a chugging train.

“Back on the Train” is profound to me in that it fills me with a self-confidence I never thought possible. It could be the cavalier lyrics or the rhythm that keeps on going through the whole performance, but I put this on when I’m happy or when I need to get happy.

The landscape of the song makes me think of a train leaving a station at the beginning, then heading out into the wilderness during the jam, and finally reaching the next station toward the end, with a lot of fun adventures along the way. I’ve listened to this performance during a lot of tense moments in the past few months, and it has always gotten me through.

7/22/97 “Mike’s Song”

The 7/22/97 version of “Mike’s Song” is all about the funk, and I would be nothing without a funky groove in my life. It’s 14 minutes of mostly funk jamming. The band is having a good time here, and it’s this kind of extended playing that can get me through work or a long drive, or really just sitting and chilling.

It’s also cool because, at about 10 minutes, things get dark and brooding. It reminds me of the sludgiest of Black Sabbath in the early days. That shift from the funky dance party to this slow, progressive meander is incredibly skillful and unexpected. It plays with your mind in a way that not a lot of other live music does.

So, Why Do I Love Live Music Now?

You should have a decent picture of Phish now. I repeat that my words can’t do them justice, but at least you know what you’d be getting into if you start listening to the band.

Phish is something that fans experience rather than simply listen to. I’ve been using the word “experience” throughout this post. It’s the best word to describe what listening to Phish is like.

Maybe with a lot of other artists, fans simply “listen” to them. I get that completely. We can’t all be Phish.

phish nye at msg

With Phish, though, you have to be all in. They don’t just make music; they create states of mind in their listeners that didn’t exist before. It’s a kind of magic that I don’t think I could generate on my own.

So, how did Phish get me to love live music? If no one else does what they do, why do I now appreciate other live performances, where before, I dismissed them as shadows of their studio betters?

It’s because Phish showed me that live music isn’t studio music and is never supposed to be. Whereas studio recordings essentially freeze an artist’s performance and emotions in time, live music is special in that it’s fleeting. It will never “exist” again. Just look at the three versions of “Ghost” above, and you can see that.

Sure, we have recordings of live shows, but no one live performance is exactly like another. This applies to all musicians. Each concert an artist gives is influenced by so many factors that seem to arise out of the ether. Setlists change, vocal inflections come and go, and even the mood of the artists on stage can affect how the performance sounds.

This is not something to be lamented or annoyed by. It’s what makes me appreciate a live performance for what it is. It doesn’t matter that it may not match a studio recording exactly or at all. Enjoying that live performance is about living in, and appreciating, the present moment.

I now have new ears for every note of live music I’ve ever heard. It’s been a beautiful rediscovery in that sense.

And it all started with Phish.

Paul Simon and the Power of Musical Repetition

Have you ever listened to a new piece of music that you’ve heard was “perfect” or an artist’s “masterpiece” and not actually liked it right away? Or, have you ever heard a new work by one of your favorite artists, still not loved it upon first or even second listen, but maybe warmed up to it later?

I have definitely been there, and I’ve noticed something interesting in maybe 90% of those cases: the frequency with which I listen to new music seems to correspond to how positively I feel about that music over time.

In my first post, “Why Do We Like the Music We Like?” I mentioned how early familiarity with certain genres of music helps to shape our musical preferences as adults. When I wrote that, I hadn’t thought of this side of that issue, the matter of liking music you once disliked.

One of my favorite YouTube channels is called Canadian Studmuffin, where Trenton, Ontario-based YouTuber Larry Graves reviews classic rock music and does comedy videos. Over the years, he has mentioned this matter every so often: the importance of giving yourself time to appreciate music that you don’t like at first.

So, all of this has got me thinking. I want to explore this subject and talk about the power of musical repetition, or how music can grow on us, given enough time and exposure to it. I’ll illustrate the matter using a perfect example from my own life: how dramatically my opinion has changed over the years on Paul Simon’s 1990 worldbeat album The Rhythm of the Saints.

What Is the Mere-Exposure Effect?

German psychologist Gustav Fechner is believed to have been the first to study what is now called the mere-exposure effect, in 1876. The name of the concept describes it well: this is a phenomenon in which we enjoy and appreciate something the more familiar we are with it.

The effect is also called the familiarity principle, and it can apply not only to our music preferences, but also to love, attraction, and advertising.

Think about your workplace, as an example. You get a new job, and everyone is a stranger at first. But that isn’t the case after a few months or years. Some people become attracted to certain coworkers over time. Our familiarity with these people tends to breed that attraction. We know them. We know what to expect from them. We start liking them.

The mere-exposure effect happens all the time, including with people and music.

enjoying music

Paul Simon, the Mere-Exposure Effect, and Me

Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints really is the perfect example for me to use in describing the mere-exposure effect. In the decades after Simon and Garfunkel broke up in 1970, Paul took his solo career in some interesting and to-me unfamiliar directions.

Paul has always known how to make a hit. He did it multiple times over with Simon and Garfunkel and continued it with his solo work. This is why I enjoyed his 1970s records so much, and so easily.

Then, I started skipping around Paul Simon’s discography and landed on 1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints. On this album, Paul continued the tradition he had started with his 1986 record Graceland: that of recording worldbeat/pop music with musicians from other countries and cultures.

With Graceland, the focus had been South African music. On The Rhythm of the Saints, it was Afro-Brazilian and other Latin American influences, played with musicians from those cultures.

When I first heard The Rhythm of the Saints in 2012, I hadn’t yet heard Graceland, so I didn’t know what Paul had been up to at this point in his career.

My first listen to The Rhythm of the Saints was terrible. To my 21-year-old self, the album was slow and boring. For the most part, it had no recognizable melodies that I could recall after a listen. The songs meandered through their tunes with lots of strange percussion instruments that I identified as being from other cultures, but that I still didn’t like any more.

However, I stuck with it, and listened to The Rhythm of the Saints over and over again. I still hated it after several months. I chalked it up to one of those albums that maybe received some good reviews at the time, but that I would just never “get.”

Then, one day, with no prior warning, it clicked for me. I don’t remember much about where I was when this happened, or when it happened, except that it was quite some time later. That’s how unremarkably The Rhythm of the Saints slipped into my personal canon of favorite music. It seems I literally went from disliking it to liking it.

I think it’s important to repeat that I gave this album quite enough time to sink in. I probably listened to The Rhythm of the Saints between 15 and 20 times before I got it. And I didn’t attempt to “cram” in all those listens in a few weeks. I’m talking about years here.

Now, the Afro-Brazilian batucada music made sense in my mind. The heavy percussion of this samba-music subset gave me that driving rhythm feeling that I love in my tunes. The congas sounded cool, and the melodies were free to meander all they liked. Songs such as “She Moves On” and “The Coast” are relaxing and enjoyable now, whereas before, they were simply confounding.

Exposing myself to that music over time had indeed done its long work. I now appreciated how Paul Simon had combined Western pop music with Latin American musical styles to create a unique work of art.

The Power of Musical Repetition Can Open New Doors

Being unfamiliar with any form of Latin American music had prevented me from liking The Rhythm of the Saints initially. I gave it about 20 listens over several years, and now I’m enjoying the fruits of that labor.

This is how I think the mere-exposure effect can open all kinds of new musical doors for us if we allow it. There’s that level of music that each of us already knows we like. It’s probably music that’s familiar to us already in some form. But then there’s another level of music–the stuff that goes against our grain–that we can access if we’re just patient enough to let it work our minds.

For me, learning about the mere-exposure effect has at least given me the option of trying to like certain new music. If I really feel like I want to attempt that, then I now know what’s involved. And I think that can be fun.

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